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Letters for Posterity

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

Horace Walpole’s Correspondence with the Rev. William Cole. Edited by w. S. Lewis and A. Dayle Wallace. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2 Volumes. $15.00. Some Unpublished Letters of Lord Chesterfield. Edited by Sidney L. Gulick, Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press. $1.50.

Often the “whirligig of Time brings in his revenges” where no revenge is due. Sir Robert Wal-pole spent his life industriously proving for his country’s good that most of his contemporaries had their price; and thus he laid the foundation for England’s greatness in the nineteenth century. As a reward, he has dwindled today into a mere “historical figure,” while his youngest son, who detested politics and courted publicity but coyly, is a green and flourishing memory. Horace Walpole’s urbane, gossipy letters about himself and his acquaintances prove him to have been a better adept than his father in the “art of perpetuity.” With the Earl of Chesterfield the circumstances are different, although the principle remains the same. Twice ambassador to Holland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and co-Secretary of State, he achieved and maintained a brilliant contemporary reputation as a political orator and essayist. Today his fame rests on his letters, which, according to Dr. Johnson, taught “the manners of a dancing-master and the morals of a whore.”

It is no accident that Horace Walpole is remembered today. It was his passionate desire that his letters should be read by future generations as a commentary on his own time. For him his correspondents were merely the exchange through which he talked at long distance to posterity—in letters many of which he footnoted for posterity’s convenience. And yet such self-consciousness as this implies did not impair, but rather increased, the value of his incomparable letters; for good letter-writing, like good manners, is an accomplishment and not an attribute.

It is needless to expatiate here on the abilities which have caused Horace Walpole to be recognized for many years as the “prince of letter writers.” In the Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s correspondence, edited by W. S. Lewis, we are to have his letters—three hundred of them never printed before—elaborately annotated and edited, and presented in a series of handsome volumes together with those of his correspondents. In other words, he who runs and he who trudges may read within a few years at least six thousand of the estimated seven thousand letters that passed between Walpole and his friends and enemies—arranged in their natural, which is to say their consecutive, order. There is to be none of that vulgar excision of “questionable” passages so much objected to by the late Lytton Strachey in the Paget Toynbee edition.

The editor and his advisory committee have wisely chosen to publish “by correspondences” and not chronologically; thus the first two volumes that have been published, “Horace Walpole’s Correspondence with the Rev. William Cole,” edited by Mr. Lewis with A. Dayle Wallace, contain all the surviving letters that passed between Walpole and his fellow antiquary, the Reverend William Cole. There will follow the “correspondences” with the poet Gray, with William Mason, the Berry sisters (“Dear Both”), the Countess of Upper Ossory (“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”), with the pathetic, lovelorn, septuagenarian Madame du Deffand, and many others. Of the difficult decisions which the editor and his advisors have been obliged to make regarding the method of this stupendous undertaking, there is only one which would seem to be regrettable: the decision to normalize the spelling and capitalization of words other than proper names. Eighteenth-century eccentricity in this matter would be but a small handicap to the few specialists who will read the volumes through; to others who will use them for consultation and for reference it would be a definite satisfaction, although a minor one, to know that the words were printed as nearly as possible to the way they were written. But this is a mere speck upon a blazing sun of scholarship which will shed such light upon the eighteenth century as even that searchlighted period has never had before. The middle and later years will teem with life restored; and the principal figures of the enormous correspondence, owing to the publication of the letters from both sides, will re-emerge with stereoptican clarity.

The Reverend William Cole, a schoolmate of Walpole’s at Eton and at King’s College, was a close, although not an intimate, friend who for twenty years conversed with him by letter on the subjects of English portraiture, county and family history, Cambridge, gout, and Gothic architecture. When Walpole, in “The Castle of Otranto,” “Bade sober Truth, reversed, for Fiction pass, And mused o’er Gothic toys through Gothic glass,” it was to Cole he turned for sympathy and understanding. For if Walpole could boast a Gothic residence at Strawberry Hill, (for which the term “pseudo” might well have been invented) Cole possessed as a concrete evidence of his interest “an elegant light and airy Chinese and Gothic temple” in the rectory garden at Bleche-ley. The gusto of the two men’s correspondence on this and many other subjects is transferred to the reader, who can dip into the volumes for delight or mine for knowledge with equal facility, thanks to the superlatively fine editing and index. Truly it is a noble undertaking, admirably begun.

“Some Unpublished Letters of Lord Chesterfield,” edited by Sidney L. Gulick, Jr., presents twenty-six hitherto unpublished letters; it is a minute undertaking in comparison with the other, but it is similar in kind and in its thorough, enlightened scholarship. The modest claim is made for the letters that they fill out rather than change one’s conception of the Earl; although this is true, it is scarcely indicative of their interest and value. All but one are written to Philip Stanhope, Chesterfield’s godson and heir. No more need be said for them than that they reflect the witty, cultivated, resplendent personality of the man who was acknowledged in his own day as he is in ours to have been the greatest gentleman of England.


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